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History of Grape Propagation

by Staff Writer - A. Heinzman | June 16, 2011

The history of plant propagation is as old as human civilization. The development of agriculture allowed the human race to abandon its hunter-gatherer ways and form the basis for modern civilizations. Thus agriculture is directly responsible for the advancement of the human race. It is important to realize that without recognizing and exploiting natural plant propagation techniques, agriculture would never have been developed and the development human civilizations would have been significantly stifled.

Today propagation programs exist for different types of plant life with each species of plant favoring a different propagation scenario. Each propagation scenario takes into account the various ways in which plant species reproduce best and also which techniques reduce or eliminate plant diseases. Due to pest problems, the preferred choice today for the propagation of Vitis vinifera is through a rootstock-grafting program. Historically Vitis vinifera used forms of propagation that were different than grafting.

Layering

Many vine based plant life forms have a capability for asexual reproduction from layering. Grapes are no exception. In a wild environment layering can be observed when a vine growth forms a new root system away from the parent. This can be caused by a vine growth touching or being covered in soil. Over time the vine growth’s root system further develops and eventually becomes severed from the parent plant. The result is a genetically identical clone of the parent.

Up until the late 1800s, layering was the preferred method of propagating Vitis vinifera. The process of layering was simple and straightforward. It did not require great skill to accomplish and the success rate of the cloned vine was high. Because layering produces an exact clone of the parent vine, desirable qualities found in the Vitis vinifera grape varieties could be easily maintained. However as advantageous as layering is for vine propagation, several serious disadvantages do exist. This can be seen in susceptibility to disease. If layering is used as the exclusive method of propagation, natural disease resistance is greatly reduced. This is because propagation scenarios that utilize cloning lead to genetics that are contained to a small set of parents. Because of this, genetically diverse plants with disease resistance characteristics are simply not present.

Phylloxera

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In the 1800s the world was becoming a smaller place and different cultivars of Vitis were being introduced to Europe. Along with the introduction of these foreign cultivars, a small sap sucking louse known as Phylloxera was introduced. American grape varieties had developed a resistance to this louse that enabled co-existence between the louse and the vine. The Europe indigenous Vitis vinifera vines had no such resistance and vineyards began to quickly die. As the French wine industry faced total destruction, many talented individuals looked for a solution to the Phylloxera problem. A solution was found that used American Rootstock grafted onto Vitis vinifera offshoots. This solution successfully solved the Phylloxera problem and once again European vineyards flourished. Phylloxera had forever changed grape growing as layering could no longer be used for vine propagation.

Grafting

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In propagation through grafting, roots and top-growth from similar species are combined to form a new plant. The root or rootstock is selected for specific qualities with respect to local soil and growing conditions, among other things. The top-growth or scion is selected for specific fruit production, among other things. A skilled technician then joins the rootstock to the scion. This process is extremely critical as failure of the union is possible due to many different variables. Keeping the union clean and free of disease, keeping pressure on the cambium layers, keeping the union within the proper temperature range all affect the success rate of a grafted union. In the end a plant with a successful graft is stronger than the two parts that make it up.

It is interesting to consider why the onslaught of Phylloxera brought about the use of a rootstock and grafting program for Vitis propagation. One must wonder why a rootstock and grafting program was not introduced and widely accepted earlier. Layering is a simple and effective method for propagation, however grafting presents additional advantages not present with layering. Grafting is useful for producing cultivars in great quantities at a fast rate. Grafting can also be used for specific varieties that typically do not root well from cuttings. Most importantly however is the fact that with grafting one can select a rootstock for the best possible values and a scion for the best possible values. The grafted result is a plant that grows better but keeps the original traits of its rootstock and scion. This is because while the plant is joined, no genetic material is transferred between the rootstock and the scion.

Rootstock grafting is the main method used for the reproduction of Vitis vinifera in the vineyard. This is mainly due to the Phylloxera louse, however secondary benefits of grafting are visible. Developing vines that perform the best for their local growing conditions has allowed vineyards to increase the quality and quantity of grape harvests.

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